I spent yesterday morning with a few other Mothers’ Union members and 5 really welcoming chaps I’d never met before – in the surroundings of the West Hill Wing Chapel of HMP Winchester. The Chapel serves the men who are living in the wing as they are nearing the end of their time and preparing for release. Going to chapel must make the guys stand out as within the life of the wing, it is very much an optional extra – they are free of their cells most of the day, so chapel is not simply used as as a ‘get out’ clause. The population of the wing is also really transient, so Mothers’ Union members who regularly go to West Hill on the first Sunday of the month, rarely get to see the same faces regularly.
I found it quite poignant preparing a sermon which was in part based on Phillipians 1:3-11 (as well as Luke 3:1-6) a letter of joy written by Paul after receiving a gift whilst in prison. Although preaching at West Hill was one of the things that led me into Reader Training (because I felt ill-equipped for either the preaching or the environment), I’ve not been back for a couple of years. Although I felt better equipped to write a sermon, my life experiences are so relatively good that I continue to fear I have little to offer. But spending time with these guys reminded my the sheer fact of taking the time to be there with them, and listen to the stories during refreshments after the service, shows that people care – coming into their world and being among them… a small token of what Jesus did for us! A hope-bringing Advent thought for them, and me.
If you’re even faintly interested my sermon is here (comments welcome): Sermon Phill1v3-11andLk3v1-6 HMP6-12-09
G, the Baptist Minister who led the service, did something that hasn’t happened on previous visits – after the intercessions he talked to the men updating the issues currently affecting them, and then prayed specifically for those issues. I was great to pray into specific situations affecting them, but it was also a really useful tool to give us visitors a ‘heads-up’ on things that the men would want to talk about with us after the service. Thanks G – much appreciated.
My sermon was very much on how we need to prepare ourselves for God, but also that it’s actually God that we’re inviting to make the preparations. These guys were all preparing to leave and so the things they were talking about afterwards were the preparations they are trying to make for when they get out sometime in the New Year.
J had become a Dad whilst in prison and wants to make a life for his family. He didn’t come from a lifetime of crime, but had spent 18months inside because of one rash moment that had disastrous consequences, losing his job being the least of them. He’s taken prison as an opportunity to learn new skills and prepare himself to earn money in any job he can get, but the Probation Service won’t let him return to the community he and his partner grew up in. Although he sort of understands why (I’m deliberately not going into detail) it means uprooting his partner, and their child to make a new life somewhere – but the Probation Service haven’t told him where he can or must go, so currently neither he or his partner can make preparations, something the Chaplaincy are trying to support him through.
I had a long chat with K – his brother died last week, and he will be allowed out to attend the funeral on Wednesday. This is Ks third spell in prison – the shortest, but the one that has made the most difference. He’s sure prison has saved his life. He reckons he’s kicked the drug habit that caused his partner to die of an overdose in the hostel they lived in before this spell – and even more movingly he told me how he’s been able to forgive his father (now dead) for a childhood of hatred. Despite his recent loss he radiated joy at the sense of release he’s found from the past because he’s been able to forgive. He’s looking forward to returning to family life he’s not participated in for many years, and especially to seeing grandchildren he hardly knows.
I thought the stories worth sharing as I think it’s important we try and understand the issues these chaps face whilst ‘paying’ for their crimes, and don’t think I’ve said anything that will stop me being asked back. I’m delighted the colleague I took with me will offer to join the preaching rota for Mothers’ Union – thanks E! Next year, I’m hoping to attend the ‘presentation day’ of the restorative justice scheme at HMP Winchester run by the Church Army Community Chaplain – there’s more about this at www.muwinchester.org.uk – a day I think will prove quiet emotional.